Rodriguez Achievement of Desire Essay
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Rodriguez Achievement of Desire Essay
Rodriguez, Achievement, Desire, Essay
Richard Rodriguez, the son of Mexican immigrants, was born in San Francisco in 1944. He grew up in Sacramento, where he attended Catholic schools before going on to Stanford University, Columbia University, the Warburg Institute in London, and the University of California at Berkeley, eventually pursuing a PhD in English Renaissance literature. His essays have been published in Saturday Review, The American Scholar, Change, and elsewhere.
He now lives in San Francisco and works as a lecturer, an educational consultant, and a freelance writer. He has published several books: Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1981), Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (1992), Brown: The Last Discovery of America (2002), and Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography (2013).
In Hunger of Memory, a book of autobiographical essays that the Christian Science Monitor called “beautifully written, wrung from a sore heart,” Rodriguez tells the story of his education, paying particular attention to both the meaning of his success as a student and, as he says, “its consequent price — the loss.”
Rodriguez’s loss is represented most powerfully by his increased alienation from his parents and the decrease of intimate exchanges in family life. His parents’ primary language was Spanish; his, once he became eager for success in school, was English. But the barrier was not only a language barrier.
Rodriguez discovered that the interests he developed at school and through his reading were interests he did not share with those at home — in fact, his desire to speak of them tended to threaten and humiliate his mother and father.
This separation, Rodriguez argues, is a necessary part of every person’s development, even
though not everyone experiences it so dramatically. We must leave home and familiar ways of speaking and understanding in order to participate in public life. On these grounds, Rodriguez has been a strong voice against bilingual education, arguing that classes conducted in Spanish will only reinforce Spanish-speaking students’ separateness from mainstream American life. Rodriguez’s book caused a great deal of controversy upon publication, particularly in the Hispanic community.
As one critic argued, “It is indeed painful that Mr. Rodriguez has come to identify himself so completely with the majority culture that he must propagandize for a system of education which can only produce other deprived and impoverished souls like himself.”
In his second book, Days of Obligation:An Argument with My Mexican Father, Rodriguez continues to explore his relationship with his family and with his Mexican heritage; here, however, he also writes of his life as a gay male and the forms of alienation entailed by his sexuality, including his sense of distance from gay lifestyles and culture, both popular and academic.
The selection that follows, Chapter 2 of Hunger of Memory, deals with Rodriguez’s experiences in school. “If,” he says, “because of my schooling I had grown culturally separated from my parents, my education finally had given me ways of speaking and caring about that fact” (p. 550).
This essay is a record of how he came to understand the changes in his life. A reviewer writing in the Atlantic Monthly concluded that Hunger of Memory will survive in our literature “not because of some forgotten public issues that once bisected Richard Rodriguez’s life, but because his history of that life has something to say about what it means to be American …and what it means to be human.”
THE BOY WHO FIRST ENTERED A CLASSROOM BARELY ABLE TO SPEAK ENGLISH, TWENTY YEARS LATER CONCLUDED HIS
STUDIES IN THE STATELY QUIET OF THE READING ROOM
IN THE BRITISH MUSEUM.
The Achievement of Desire
I stand in the ghetto classroom — “the guest speaker” — attempting to lecture on the mystery of the sounds of our words to rows of diffident students. “Don’t you hear it? Listen! The music of our words. ‘Sumer is icumen in….’ And songs on the car radio. We need Aretha Franklin’s voice to fill plain words with music — her life.”
In the face of their empty stares, I try to create an enthusiasm. But the girls in the back row turn to watch some boy passing outside. There are flutters of smiles, waves. And someone’s mouth elongates heavy, silent words through the barrier of glass. Silent words — the lips straining to shape each voiceless syllable: “Meet meee late errr.”
By the door, the instructor smiles at me, apparently hoping that I will be able to spark some enthusiasm in the class. But only one student seems to be listening. A girl, maybe fourteen. In this gray room her eyes shine with ambition.
She keeps nodding and nodding at all that I say; she even takes notes. And each time I ask a question, she jerks up and down in her desk like a marionette, while her hand waves over the bowed heads of her classmates. It is myself (as a boy) I see as she faces me now (a man in my thirties).
The boy who first entered a classroom barely able to speak English, twenty years later concluded his studies in the stately quiet of the reading room in the British Museum. Thus with one sentence I can summarize my academic career. It will be harder to summarize what sort of life connects the boy to the man.
With every award, each graduation from one level of education to the next, people I’d meet would congratulate me.
Their refrain [was] always the same: “Your parents must be very proud.” Sometimes then they’d ask me how I managed it — my “success.” (How?) After a while, I had several quick answers to give in reply. I’d admit, for one thing, that I went to an excellent grammar school. (My earliest teachers, the nuns, made my success their ambition.)
And my brother and both my sisters were very good students. (They often brought home the shiny school trophies I came to want.) And my mother and father always encouraged me. (At every graduation they were behind the stunning flash of the camera when I turned to look at the crowd.)
As important as these factors were, however, they account inadequately for my academic advance. Nor do they suggest what an odd success I managed. For although I was a very good student, I was also a very bad student. I was a “scholarship boy,” a certain kind of scholarship boy. Always successful, I was always unconfident.
Exhilarated by my progress. Sad. I became the prized student — anxious and eager to learn. Too eager, too anxious — an imitative and unoriginal pupil. My brother and two sisters enjoyed the advantages I did, and they grew to be as successful as I, but none of them ever seemed so anxious about their schooling.
A second- grade student, I was the one who came home and corrected the “simple” grammatical mistakes of our parents. (“Two negatives make a positive.”) Proudly I announced — to my family’s startled silence — that a teacher had said I was losing all trace of a Spanish accent. I was oddly
annoyed when I was unable to get parental help with a homework assignment. The night my father tried to help me with an arithmetic exercise, he kept reading the instructions, each time more deliberately, until I pried the textbook out of his hands, saying, “I’ll try to figure it out some more by myself.”
When I reached the third grade, I outgrew such behavior. I became more tactful, careful to keep separate the two very different worlds of my day. But then, with ever-increasing intensity, I devoted myself to my studies. I became bookish, puzzling to all my family. Ambition set me apart.
When my brother saw me struggling home with stacks of library books, he would laugh, shouting: “Hey, Four Eyes!” My father opened a closet one day and was startled to find me inside, reading a novel. My mother would find me reading when I was supposed to be asleep or helping around the house or playing outside. In a voice angry or worried or just curious, she’d ask: “What do you see in your books?” It became the family’s joke. When I was called and wouldn’t reply, someone would say I must be hiding under my bed with a book.
(How did I manage my success?) What I am about to say to you has taken me more than twenty years to admit: A primary
reason for my success in the classroom was that I couldn’t forget that schooling was changing me and separating me from the life I enjoyed before becoming a student. That simple realization! For years I never spoke to anyone about it. Never mentioned a thing to my family or my teachers or classmates.
From a very early age, I understood enough, just enough about my classroom experiences to keep what I knew repressed, hidden beneath layers of embarrassment. Not until my last months as a graduate student, nearly thirty years old, was it possible for me to think much about the reasons for my academic success.
Only then. At the end of my schooling, I needed to determine how far I had moved from my past. The adult finally confronted, and now must publicly say, what the child shuddered from knowing and could never admit to himself or to those many faces that smiled at his every success. (“Your parents must be very proud….”)
At the end, in the British Museum (too distracted to finish my dissertation) for weeks I read, speed-read, books by modern educational theorists, only to find infrequent and slight mention of students like me. (Much more is written about the more typical case, the lower-class student who barely is helped by his schooling.)
Then one day, leafing through Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, I found, in his description of the scholarship boy, myself. For the first time I realized that there were other students like me, and so I was able to frame the meaning of my academic success, its consequent price the loss.
Hoggart’s description is distinguished, at least initially, by deep understanding. What he grasps very well is that the scholarship boy must move between environments, his home and the classroom, which are at cultural extremes, opposed. With his family, the boy has the intense pleasure of intimacy, the family’s consolation in feeling public alienation.
Lavish emotions texture home life. Then, at school, the instruction bids him to trust lonely reason primarily. Immediate needs set the pace of his parents’ lives. From his mother and father the boy learns to trust spontaneity and nonrational ways of knowing. Then, at school, there is mental calm. Teachers emphasize the value of a reflectiveness that opens a space between thinking and immediate action.
Years of schooling must pass before the boy will be able to sketch the cultural differences in his day as abstractly as this. But he senses those differences early. Perhaps as early as the night he brings home an assignment from school and finds the house too noisy for study.
He has to be more and more alone, if he is going to “get on.” He will have, probably unconsciously, to oppose the ethos of the hearth, the intense gregariousness of the working- class family group. Since everything centres upon the living-room, there is unlikely to be a room of his own; the bedrooms are cold and inhospitable, and to warm them or the front room, if there is one, would not only be expensive, but would require an imaginative leap out of the tradition which most families are not capable of making.
There is a corner of the living-room table. On the other side Mother is ironing, the wireless is on, someone is singing a snatch of song or Father says intermittently whatever comes into his head. The boy has to cut himself off mentally, so as to do his homework, as well as he can.1
The next day, the lesson is as apparent at school. There are even rows of desks. Discussion is ordered. The boy must rehearse his thoughts and raise his hand before speaking out in a loud voice to an audience of classmates. And there is time enough, and silence, to think about ideas (big ideas) never considered at home by his parents.
Not for the working-class child alone is adjustment to the classroom difficult. Good schooling requires that any student alter early childhood habits. But the working-class child is usually least prepared for the change. And, unlike many middle-class children, he goes home and sees in his parents a way of life not only different but starkly opposed to that of the classroom. (He enters the house and hears his parents talking in ways his teachers discourage.)
Without extraordinary determination and the great assistance of others at home and at school there is little chance for success. Typically most working-class children are barely changed by the classroom. The exception succeeds. The relative few become scholarship students. Of these, Richard Hoggart estimates, most manage a fairly graceful transition.
Somehow they learn to live in the two very different worlds of their day. There are some others, however, those Hoggart pejoratively terms “scholarship boys,” for whom success comes with special anxiety. Scholarship boy: good student, troubled son. The child is “moderately endowed,” intellectually mediocre, Hoggart supposes though it may be more pertinent to
note the special qualities of temperament in the child. High-strung child. Brooding. Sensitive. Haunted by the knowledge that one chooses to become a student. (Education is not an inevitable or natural step in growing up.) Here is a child who cannot forget that his academic success distances him from a life he loved, even from his own memory of himself.
Initially, he wavers, balances allegiance. (“The boy is himself [until he reaches, say, the upper forms] very much of both the worlds of home and school. He is enormously obedient to the dictates of the world of school, but emotionally still strongly wants to continue as part of the family circle.”) Gradually, necessarily, the balance is lost. The boy needs to spend more and more time studying, each night enclosing himself in the silence permitted and required by intense concentration. He takes his first step toward academic success, away from his family.
From the very first days, through the years following, it will be with his parents the figures of lost authority, the persons toward whom he feels deepest love that the change will be most powerfully measured. A separation will unravel between them. Advancing in his studies, the boy notices that his mother and father have not changed as much as he.
Rather, when he sees them, they often remind him of the person he once was and the life he earlier shared with them. He realizes what some Romantics also know when they praise the working class for the capacity for human closeness, qualities of passion and spontaneity, that the rest of us experience in like measure only in the earliest part of our youth. For the Romantic, this doesn’t make working-class life childish. Working-class life challenges precisely because it is an adult way of life.
The scholarship boy reaches a different conclusion. He cannot afford to admire his parents. (How could he and still pursue such a contrary life?) He permits himself embarrassment at their lack of education. And to evade nostalgia for the life he has lost, he concentrates on the benefits education will bestow upon him. He becomes especially ambitious.
Without the support of old certainties and consolations, almost mechanically, he assumes the procedures and doctrines of the classroom. The kind of allegiance the young student might have given his mother and father only days earlier, he transfers to the teacher, the new figure of authority. “[The scholarship boy] tends to make a father-figure of his form-master,” Hoggart observes.
But Hoggart’s calm prose only makes me recall the urgency with which I came to idolize my grammar school teachers. I began by imitating their accents, using their diction, trusting their every direction. The very first facts they dispensed, I grasped with awe.
Any book they told me to read, I read then waited for them to tell me which books I enjoyed. Their every casual opinion I came to adopt and to trumpet when I returned home. I stayed after school “to help” to get my teacher’s undivided attention.
It was the nun’s encouragement that mattered most to me. (She understood exactly what my parents never seemed to appraise so well all my achievements entailed.) Memory gently caressed each word of praise bestowed in the classroom so that compliments teachers paid me years ago come quickly to mind even today.
The enthusiasm I felt in second-grade classes I flaunted before both my parents. The docile, obedient student came home a shrill and precocious son who insisted on correcting and teaching his parents with the remark: “My teacher told us….”
I intended to hurt my mother and father. I was still angry at them for having encouraged me toward classroom English. But gradually this anger was exhausted, replaced by guilt as school grew more and more attractive to me. I grew increasingly successful, a talkative student. My hand was raised in the classroom; I yearned to answer any question.
At home, life was less noisy than it had been. (I spoke to classmates and teachers more often each day than to family members.) Quiet at home, I sat with my papers for hours each night. I never forgot that schooling had irretrievably changed my family’s life. That knowledge, however, did not weaken ambition. Instead, it strengthened resolve. Those times I remembered the loss of my
past with regret, I quickly reminded myself of all the things my teachers could give me. (They could make me an educated man.) I tightened my grip on pencil and books. I evaded nostalgia. Tried hard to forget. But one does not forget by trying to forget. One only remembers. I remembered too well that education had changed my family’s life. I would not have become a scholarship boy had I not so often remembered.
Once she was sure that her children knew English, my mother would tell us, “You should keep up your Spanish.” Voices playfully groaned in response. “¡Pochos!” my mother would tease. I listened silently.
After a while, I grew more calm at home. I developed tact. A fourth-grade student, I was no longer the show-off in front of my parents. I became a conventionally dutiful son, politely affectionate, cheerful enough, even for reasons beyond choosing my father’s favorite.
And much about my family life was easy then, comfortable, happy in the rhythm of our living together: hearing my father getting ready for work; eating the breakfast my mother had made me; looking up from a novel to hear my brother or one of my sisters playing with friends in the backyard; in winter, coming upon the house all lighted up after dark.
But withheld from my mother and father was any mention of what most mattered to me: the extraordinary experience of first-learning. Late afternoon: in the midst of preparing dinner, my mother would come up behind me while I was trying to read. Her head just over mine, her breath warmly scented with food.
“What are you reading?” Or, “Tell me all about your new courses.” I would barely respond, “Just the usual things, nothing special.” (A half smile, then silence. Her head moving back in the silence. Silence! Instead of the flood of intimate sounds that had once flowed smoothly between us, there was this silence.) After dinner, I would rush to a bedroom with papers and books.
As often as possible, I resisted parental pleas to “save lights” by coming to the kitchen to work. I kept so much, so often, to myself. Sad. Enthusiastic. Troubled by the excitement of coming upon new ideas. Eager. Fascinated by the promising texture of a brand-new book. I hoarded the pleasures of learning. Alone for hours. Enthralled. Nervous. I rarely looked away from my books or back on my memories. Nights when relatives visited and the front rooms were warmed by Spanish sounds, I slipped quietly out of the house.
It mattered that education was changing me. It never ceased to matter. My brother and sisters would giggle at our mother’s mispronounced words. They’d correct her gently. My mother laughed girlishly one night, trying not to pronounce sheep as ship. From a distance I listened sullenly.
From that distance, pretending not to notice on another occasion, I saw my father looking at the title pages of my library books. That was the scene on my mind when I walked home with a fourth-grade companion and heard him say that his parents read to him every night. (A strange-sounding book Winnie the Pooh.) Immediately, I wanted to know, “What is it like?” My companion, however, thought I wanted to know about the plot of the book.
Another day, my mother surprised me by asking for a “nice” book to read. “Something not too hard you think I might like.” Carefully I chose one, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. But when, several weeks later, I happened to see it next to her bed unread except for the first few pages, I was furious and suddenly wanted to cry. I grabbed up the book and took it back to my room and placed it in its place, alphabetically on my shelf.
“Your parents must be very proud of you.” People began to say that to me about the time I was in sixth grade. To answer affirmatively, I’d smile. Shyly I’d smile, never betraying my sense of the irony: I was not proud of my mother and father. I was embarrassed by their lack of education. It was not that I ever thought they were stupid, though stupidly I took for granted their enormous native intelligence. Simply, what mattered to me was that they were not like my
teachers. But, “Why didn’t you tell us about the award?” my mother demanded, her frown weakened
by pride. At the grammar school ceremony several weeks after, her eyes were brighter than the trophy I’d won. Pushing back the hair from my forehead, she whispered that I had “shown” the gringos. A few minutes later, I heard my father speak to my teacher and felt ashamed of his labored, accented words. Then guilty for the shame. I felt such contrary feelings. (There is no simple road-map through the heart of the scholarship boy.)
My teacher was so soft-spoken and her words were edged sharp and clean. I admired her until it seemed to me that she spoke too carefully. Sensing that she was condescending to them, I became nervous. Resentful. Protective. I tried to move my parents away. “You both must be very proud of Richard,” the nun said. They responded quickly. (They were proud.) “We are proud of all our children.” Then this afterthought: “They sure didn’t get their brains from us.” They all laughed. I smiled.
Tightening the irony into a knot was the knowledge that my parents were always behind me. They made success possible. They evened the path. They sent their children to parochial schools because the nuns “teach better.” They paid a tuition they couldn’t afford. They spoke English to us.
For their children my parents wanted chances they never had — an easier way. It saddened my mother to learn that some relatives forced their children to start working right after high school. To her children she would say, “Get all the education you can.” In schooling she recognized the key to job advancement. And with the remark she remembered her past.
As a girl new to America my mother had been awarded a high school diploma by teachers too careless or busy to notice that she hardly spoke English. On her own, she determined to learn how to type. That skill got her jobs typing envelopes in letter shops, and it encouraged in her an optimism about the possibility of advancement. (Each morning when her sisters put on uniforms, she chose a bright-colored dress.)
The years of young womanhood passed, and her typing speed increased. She also became an excellent speller of words she mispronounced. “And I’ve never been to college,” she’d say, smiling, when her children asked her to spell words they were too lazy to look up in a dictionary.
Typing, however, was dead-end work. Finally frustrating. When her youngest child started high school, my mother got a full-time office job once again. (Her paycheck combined with my father’s to make us — in fact — what we had already become in our imagination of ourselves — middle class.) She worked then for the (California) state government in numbered civil service positions secured by examinations.
The old ambition of her youth was rekindled. During the lunch hour, she consulted bulletin boards for announcements of openings. One day she saw mention of something called an “anti-poverty agency.” A typing job. A glamorous job, part of the governor’s staff. “A knowledge of Spanish required.” Without hesitation she applied and became nervous only when the job was suddenly hers.
“Everyone comes to work all dressed up,” she reported at night. And didn’t need to say more than that her co-workers wouldn’t let her answer the phones. She was only a typist, after all, albeit a very fast typist. And an excellent speller. One morning there was a letter to be sent to a Washington cabinet officer. On the dictating tape, a voice referred to urban guerrillas. My mother typed (the wrong word, correctly): “gorillas.”
The mistake horrified the anti-poverty bureaucrats who shortly after arranged to have her returned to her previous position. She would go no further. So she willed her ambition to their children. “Get all the education you can; with an education you can do anything.” (With a good education she could have done anything.)
When I was in high school, I admitted to my mother that I planned to become a teacher someday. That seemed to please her. But I never tried to explain that it was not the occupation
IT WAS MY FATHER WHO LAUGHED WHEN I CLAIMED TO
BE TIRED BY READING AND WRITING.
of teaching I yearned for as much as it was something more elusive: I wanted to be like my teachers, to possess their knowledge, to assume their authority, their confidence, even to assume a teacher’s persona.
In contrast to my mother, my father never verbally encouraged his children’s academic success. Nor did he often praise us. My mother had to remind him to “say something” to one of his children who scored some academic success. But whereas my mother saw in education the opportunity for job advancement, my father recognized that education provided an even more startling possibility: it could enable a person to escape from a life of mere labor.
In Mexico, orphaned when he was eight, my father left school to work as an “apprentice” for an uncle. Twelve years later, he left Mexico in frustration and arrived in America. He had great expectations then of becoming an engineer. (“Work for my hands and my head.”) He
knew a Catholic priest who promised to get him money enough to study full time for a high school diploma. But the promises came to nothing. Instead there was a dark succession of warehouse, cannery, and factory jobs. After work he went to night school along with my mother. A year, two passed.
Nothing much changed, except that fatigue worked its way into the bone; then everything changed. He didn’t talk anymore of becoming an engineer. He stayed outside on the steps of the school while my mother went inside to learn typing and shorthand.
By the time I was born, my father worked at “clean” jobs. For a time he was a janitor at a fancy department store. (“Easy work; the machines do it all.”) Later he became a dental technician. (“Simple.”) But by then he was pessimistic about the ultimate meaning of work and the possibility of ever escaping its claims.
In some of my earliest memories of him, my father already seems aged by fatigue. (He has never really grown old like my mother.) From boyhood to manhood, I have remembered him in a single image: seated, asleep on the sofa, his head thrown back in a hideous corpselike grin, the evening newspaper spread out before him. “But look at all you’ve accomplished,” his best friend said to him once. My father said nothing. Only smiled.
It was my father who laughed when I claimed to be tired by reading and writing. It was he who teased me for having soft hands. (He seemed to sense that some great achievement of leisure was implied by my papers and books.) It was my father who became angry while watching on television some woman at the Miss America contest tell the announcer that she was going to college. (“Majoring in fine arts.”) “College!” he snarled. He despised the trivialization of higher education, the inflated grades and cheapened diplomas, the half education that so often passed as mass education in my generation.
It was my father again who wondered why I didn’t display my awards on the wall of my bedroom. He said he liked to go to doctors’ offices and see their certificates and degrees on the wall. (“Nice.”) My citations from school got left in closets at home.
The gleaming figure astride one of my trophies was broken, wingless, after hitting the ground. My medals were placed in a jar of loose change. And when I lost my high school diploma, my father found it as it was about to be thrown out with the trash. Without telling me, he put it away with his own things for safe-keeping.
These memories slammed together at the instant of hearing that refrain familiar to all scholarship students: “Your parents must be proud….” Yes, my parents were proud. I knew it. But my parents regarded my progress with more than mere pride. They endured my early
precocious behavior — but with what private anger and humiliation? As their children got older and would come home to challenge ideas both of them held, they argued before submitting to the force of logic or superior factual evidence with the disclaimer, “It’s what we were taught in our time to believe.”
These discussions ended abruptly, though my mother remembered them on other occasions when she complained that our “big ideas” were going to our heads. More acute was her complaint that the family wasn’t close anymore, like some others she knew. Why weren’t we close, “more in the Mexican style”? Everyone is so private, she added. And she mimicked the yes and no answers she got in reply to her questions. Why didn’t we talk more? (My father never asked.) I never said.
I was the first in my family who asked to leave home when it came time to go to college. I had been admitted to Stanford, one hundred miles away. My departure would only make physically apparent the separation that had occurred long before. But it was going too far. In the months preceding my leaving, I heard the question my mother never asked except indirectly.
In the hot kitchen, tired at the end of her workday, she demanded to know, “Why aren’t the colleges here in Sacramento good enough for you? They are for your brother and sister.” In the middle of a car ride, not turning to face me, she wondered, “Why do you need to go so far away?”
Late at night, ironing, she said with disgust, “Why do you have to put us through this big expense? You know your scholarship will never cover it all.” But when September came there was a rush to get everything ready. In a bedroom that last night I packed the big brown valise, and my mother sat nearby sewing initials onto the clothes I would take. And she said no more about my leaving.
Months later, two weeks of Christmas vacation: the first hours home were the hardest. (“What’s new?”) My parents and I sat in the kitchen for a conversation. (But, lacking the same words to develop our sentences and to shape our interests, what was there to say?
What could I tell them of the term paper I had just finished on the “universality of Shakespeare’s appeal”?) I mentioned only small, obvious things: my dormitory life; weekend trips I had taken; random events. They responded with news of their own. (One was almost grateful for a family crisis about which there was much to discuss.) We tried to make our conversation seem like more than an interview.
From an early age I knew that my mother and father could read and write both Spanish and English. I had observed my father making his way through what, I now suppose, must have been income tax forms. On other occasions I waited apprehensively while my mother read onion-paper letters airmailed from Mexico with news of a relative’s illness or death.
For both my parents, however, reading was something done out of necessity and as quickly as possible. Never did I see either of them read an entire book. Nor did I see them read for pleasure. Their reading consisted of work manuals, prayer books, newspaper, recipes.
Richard Hoggart imagines how, at home,
[the scholarship boy] sees strewn around, and reads regularly himself, magazines which are never mentioned at school, which seem not to belong to the world to which the school introduces him; at school he hears about and reads books never mentioned at home. When he brings those books into the house they do not take their place with other books which the family are reading, for often there are none or almost none; his books look, rather, like strange tools.
In our house each school year would begin with my mother’s careful instruction: “Don’t write in your books so we can sell them at the end of the year.” The remark was echoed in public by my teachers, but only in part: “Boys and girls, don’t write in your books. You must learn to treat them with great care and respect.”
OPEN THE DOORS OF YOUR MIND WITH BOOKS, read the red and white poster over the nun’s desk in early September. It soon was apparent to me that reading was the classroom’s central activity. Each course had its own book. And the information gathered from a book was unquestioned. READ TO LEARN, the sign on the wall advised in December.
I privately wondered: What was the connection between reading and learning? Did one learn something only by reading it? Was an idea only an idea if it could be written down? In June, CONSIDER BOOKS YOUR BEST FRIENDS. Friends? Reading was, at best, only a chore. I needed to look up whole paragraphs of words in a dictionary.
Lines of type were dizzying, the eye having to move slowly across the page, then down, and across…. The sentences of the first books I read were coolly impersonal. Toned hard. What most bothered me, however, was the isolation reading required. To console myself for the loneliness I’d feel when I read, I tried reading in a very soft voice. Until: “Who is doing all that talking to his neighbor?” Shortly after, remedial reading classes were arranged for me with a very old nun.
At the end of each school day, for nearly six months, I would meet with her in the tiny room that served as the school’s library but was actually only a storeroom for used textbooks and a vast collection of National Geographics. Everything about our sessions pleased me: the smallness of the room; the noise of the janitor’s broom hitting the edge of the long hallway outside the door; the green of the sun, lighting the wall; and the old woman’s face blurred white with a beard. Most of the time we took turns.
I began with my elementary text. Sentences of astonishing simplicity seemed to me lifeless and drab: “The boys ran from the rain…. She wanted to sing…. The kite rose in the blue.” Then the old nun would read from her favorite books, usually biographies of early American presidents. Playfully she ran through complex sentences, calling the words alive with her voice, making it seem that the author somehow was speaking directly to me. I smiled just to listen to her.
I sat there and sensed for the very first time some possibility of fellowship between a reader and a writer, a communication, never intimate like that I heard spoken words at home convey, but one nonetheless personal.
One day the nun concluded a session by asking me why I was so reluctant to read by
myself. I tried to explain; said something about the way written words made me feel all alone — almost, I wanted to add but didn’t, as when I spoke to myself in a room just emptied of furniture. She studied my face as I spoke; she seemed to be watching more than listening. In an uneventful voice she replied that I had nothing to fear. Didn’t I realize that reading would open up whole new worlds?
A book could open doors for me. It could introduce me to people and show me places I never imagined existed. She gestured toward the bookshelves. (Bare-breasted African women danced, and the shiny hubcaps of automobiles on the back covers of the Geographic gleamed in my mind.) I listened with respect.
But her words were not very influential. I was thinking then of another consequence of literacy, one I was too shy to admit but nonetheless trusted. Books were going to make me “educated.” That confidence enabled me, several months later, to overcome my fear of the silence.
In fourth grade I embarked upon a grandiose reading program. “Give me the names of important books,” I would say to startled teachers. They soon found out that I had in mind “adult books.” I ignored their suggestion of anything I suspected was written for children. (Not until I was in college, as a result, did I read Huckleberry Finn or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.) Instead, I read The Scarlet Letter and Franklin’s Autobiography.
And whatever I read I read for extra credit. Each time I finished a book, I reported the achievement to a teacher and basked in the praise my effort earned. Despite my best efforts, however, there seemed to be more and more books I needed to read. At the library I would literally tremble as I came upon whole shelves of books I hadn’t read.
So I read and I read and I read: Great Expectations; all the short stories of Kipling; The Babe Ruth Story; the entire first volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica (A–ANSTEY); the Iliad; Moby Dick; Gone with the Wind; The Good Earth; Ramona; Forever Amber; The Lives of the Saints; Crime and Punishment; The Pearl…. Librarians who initially frowned when I checked out the maximum ten books at a time started saving books they thought I might like. Teachers would say to the rest of the class, “I only wish the rest of you took reading as seriously as Richard obviously does.”
But at home I would hear my mother wondering, “What do you see in your books?” (Was reading a hobby like her knitting? Was so much reading even healthy for a boy? Was it the sign of “brains”? Or was it just a convenient excuse for not helping about the house on Saturday mornings?) Always, “What do you see …?”
What did I see in my books? I had the idea that they were crucial for my academic success, though I couldn’t have said exactly how or why. In the sixth grade I simply concluded that what gave a book its value was some major idea or theme it contained. If that core essence could be mined and memorized, I would become learned like my teachers.
I decided to record in a notebook the themes of the books that I read. After reading Robinson Crusoe, I wrote that its theme was “the value of learning to live by oneself.” When I completed Wuthering Heights, I noted the danger of “letting emotions get out of control.” Rereading these brief moralistic appraisals usually left me disheartened.
I couldn’t believe that they were really the source of reading’s value. But for many more years, they constituted the only means I had of describing to myself the educational value of books.
In spite of my earnestness, I found reading a pleasurable activity. I came to enjoy the lonely good company of books. Early on weekday mornings, I’d read in my bed. I’d feel a mysterious comfort then, reading in the dawn quiet — the blue-gray silence interrupted by the occasional churning of the refrigerator motor a few rooms away or the more distant sounds of a city bus beginning its run.
On weekends I’d go to the public library to read, surrounded by old men and women. Or, if the weather was fine, I would take my books to the park and read in the shade of a tree. A warm summer evening was my favorite reading time. Neighbors would leave for vacation and I would water their lawns. I would sit through the twilight on the front porches or
THE SCHOLARSHIP BOY PLEASES MOST WHEN HE IS YOUNG — T HE WORKING-
CLASS CHILD STRUGGLING FOR ACADEMIC SUCCESS.
in backyards, reading to the cool, whirling sounds of the sprinklers. I also had favorite writers. But often those writers I enjoyed most I was least able to value.
When I read William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, I was immediately pleased by the narrator’s warmth and the charm of his story. But as quickly I became suspicious. A book so enjoyable to read couldn’t be very “important.” Another summer I determined to read all the novels of Dickens.
Reading his fat novels, I loved the feeling I got — after the first hundred pages — of being at home in a fictional world where I knew the names of the characters and cared about what was going to happen to them. And it bothered me that I was forced away at the conclusion, when the fiction closed tight, like a fortune-teller’s fist — the futures of all the major characters neatly resolved. I never knew how to take such feelings seriously, however.
Nor did I suspect that these experiences could be part of a novel’s meaning. Still, there were pleasures to sustain me after I’d finish my books. Carrying a volume back to the library, I would be pleased by its weight. I’d run my fingers along the edge of the pages and marvel at the breadth of my achievement. Around my room, growing stacks of paperback books reinforced my assurance.
I entered high school having read hundreds of books. My habit of reading made me a confident speaker and writer of English. Reading also enabled me to sense something of the shape, the major concerns, of Western thought. (I was able to say something about Dante and Descartes and Engels and James Baldwin in my high school term papers.) In these various ways, books brought me academic success as I hoped that they would. But I was not a good reader.
Merely bookish, I lacked a point of view when I read. Rather, I read in order to acquire a point of view. I vacuumed books for epigrams, scraps of information, ideas, themes — anything to fill the hollow within me and make me feel educated. When one of my teachers suggested to his drowsy tenth-grade English class that a person could not have a “complicated idea” until he had read at least two thousand books, I heard the remark without detecting either its irony or its very complicated truth.
I merely determined to compile a list of all the books I had ever read. Harsh with myself, I included only once a title I might have read several times. (How, after all, could one read a book more than once?) And I included only those books over a hundred pages in length. (Could anything shorter be a book?)
There was yet another high school list I compiled. One day I came across a newspaper article about the retirement of an English professor at a nearby state college. The article was accompanied by a list of the “hundred most important books of Western Civilization.” “More than anything else in my life,” the professor told the reporter
with finality, “these books have made me all that I am.” That was the kind of remark I couldn’t ignore. I clipped out the list and kept it for the several months it took me to read all of the titles. Most books, of course, I barely understood. While reading Plato’s Republic, for instance, I needed to keep looking at the book jacket comments to remind myself what the text was about.
Nevertheless, with the special patience and superstition of a scholarship boy, I looked at every word of the text. And by the time I reached the last word, relieved, I convinced myself that I had read The Republic. In a ceremony of great pride, I solemnly crossed Plato off my list.
The scholarship boy pleases most when he is young the working-class child struggling for academic success. To his teachers, he offers great satisfaction; his success is their proudest achievement. Many other persons offer to help him. A businessman learns the boy’s story and promises to underwrite part of the cost of his college education.
A woman leaves him her entire library of several hundred books when she moves. His progress is featured in a newspaper article. Many people seem happy for him. They marvel. “How did you manage so fast?” From all sides, there is lavish praise and encouragement.
In his grammar school classroom, however, the boy already makes students around him uneasy. They scorn his desire to succeed. They scorn him for constantly wanting the teacher’s attention and praise. “Kiss Ass,” they call him when his hand swings up in response to every question he hears.
Later, when he makes it to college, no one will mock him aloud. But he detects annoyance on the faces of some students and even some teachers who watch him. It puzzles him often. In college, then in graduate school, he behaves much as he always has. If anything is different about him it is that he dares to anticipate the successful conclusion of his studies.
At last he feels that he belongs in the classroom, and this is exactly the source of the dissatisfaction he causes. To many persons around him, he appears too much the academic. There may be some things about him that recall his beginnings his shabby clothes; his persistent poverty; or his dark skin (in those cases when it symbolizes his parents’ disadvantaged condition) but they only make clear how far he has moved from his past. He has used education to remake himself.
It bothers his fellow academics to face this. They will not say why exactly. (They sneer.) But their expectations become obvious when they are disappointed. They expect ] they want a student less changed by his schooling. If the scholarship boy, from a past so distant from the classroom, could remain in some basic way unchanged, he would be able to prove that it is possible for anyone to become educated without basically changing from the person one was.
Here is no fabulous hero, no idealized scholar-worker. The scholarship boy does not straddle, cannot reconcile, the two great opposing cultures of his life. His success is unromantic and plain. He sits in the classroom and offers those sitting beside him no calming reassurance about their own lives. He sits in the seminar room
a man with brown skin, the son of working-class Mexican immigrant parents. (Addressing the professor at the head of the table, his voice catches with nervousness.) There is no trace of his parents in his speech. Instead he approximates the accents of teachers and classmates. Coming from him those sounds seem suddenly odd.
Odd too is the effect produced when he uses academic jargon — bubbles at the tip of his tongue: “Topos …negative capability …vegetation imagery in Shakespearean comedy.” He lifts an opinion from Coleridge, takes something else from Frye or Empson or Leavis. He even repeats exactly his professor’s earlier comment. All his ideas are clearly borrowed. He seems to have no thought of his own. He chatters while his listeners smile — their look one of disdain.
When he is older and thus when so little of the person he was survives, the scholarship boy makes only too apparent his profound lack of self-confidence. This is the conventional assessment that even Richard Hoggart repeats:
[The scholarship boy] tends to over-stress the importance of examinations, of the piling-up of knowledge and of received opinions. He discovers a technique of apparent learning, of the acquiring of facts rather than of the handling and use of facts. He learns how to receive a purely literate education, one using only a small part of the personality and challenging only a
limited area of his being. He begins to see life as a ladder, as permanent examination with some praise and some further exhortation at each stage. He becomes an expert imbiber and doler-out; his competence will vary, but will rarely be accompanied by genuine enthusiasms. He rarely feels the reality of knowledge, of other men’s thoughts and imaginings, on his own pulses. …He has something of the blinkered pony about him“.
But this is criticism more accurate than fair. The scholarship boy is a very bad student. He is the great mimic; a collector of thoughts, not a thinker; the very last person in class who ever feels obliged to have an opinion of his own. In large part, however, the reason he is such a bad student is because he realizes more often and more acutely than most other students — than Hoggart himself — that education requires radical self-reformation.
As a very young boy, regarding his parents, as he struggles with an early homework assignment, he knows this too well. That is why he lacks self-assurance. He does not forget that the classroom is responsible for remaking him. He relies on his teacher, depends on all that he hears in the classroom and reads in his books. He becomes in every obvious way the worst student, a dummy mouthing the opinions of others. But he would not be so bad — nor would he become so successful, a scholarship boy — if he did not accurately perceive that the best synonym for primary “education” is “imitation.”
Those who would take seriously the boy’s success — and his failure — would be forced to realize how great is the change any academic undergoes, how far one must move from one’s past. It is easiest to ignore such considerations. So little is said about the scholarship boy in pages and pages of educational literature. Nothing is said of the silence that comes to separate the boy from his parents. Instead, one hears proposals for increasing the self-esteem of students and encouraging early intellectual independence.
Paragraphs glitter with a constellation of terms like creativity and originality. (Ignored altogether is the function of imitation in a student’s life.) Radical educationalists meanwhile complain that ghetto schools “oppress” students by trying to mold them, stifling native characteristics. The truer critique would be just the reverse: not that schools change ghetto students too much, but that while they might promote the occasional scholarship student, they change most students barely at all.
From the story of the scholarship boy there is no specific pedagogy to glean. There is, however, a much larger lesson. His story makes clear that education is a long, unglamorous, even demeaning process — a nurturing never natural to the person one was before one entered a classroom. At once different from most other students, the scholarship boy is also the archetypal “good student.”
He exaggerates the difficulty of being a student, but his exaggeration reveals a general predicament. Others are changed by their schooling as much as he. They too must re-form themselves. They must develop the skill of memory long before they become truly critical thinkers. And when they read Plato for the first several times, it will be with awe more than deep comprehension.
The impact of schooling on the scholarship boy is only more apparent to the boy himself and to others. Finally, although he may be laughable — a blinkered pony — the boy will not let his critics forget their own change. He ends up too much like them. When he speaks, they hear themselves echoed. In his pedantry, they trace their own. His ambitions are theirs. If his failure were singular, they might readily pity him. But he is more troubling than that. They would not scorn him if this were not so.
Like me, Hoggart’s imagined scholarship boy spends most of his years in the classroom afraid to long for his past. Only at the very end of his schooling does the boy-man become nostalgic. In this sudden change of heart, Richard Hoggart notes:
He longs for the membership he lost, “he pines for some Nameless Eden where he never was.” The nostalgia is the stronger and the more ambiguous because he is really “in quest of his own absconded self yet scared to find it.” He both wants to go back and yet thinks he has gone beyond his class, feels himself weighted with knowledge of his own and their situation, which hereafter forbids him the simpler pleasures of his father and mother….
According to Hoggart, the scholarship boy grows nostalgic because he remains the uncertain scholar, bright enough to have moved from his past, yet unable to feel easy, a part of a community of academics.
This analysis, however, only partially suggests what happened to me in my last year as a graduate student. When I traveled to London to write a dissertation on English Renaissance literature, I was finally confident of membership in a “community of scholars.” But the pleasure that confidence gave me faded rapidly.
After only two or three months in the reading room of the British Museum, it became clear that I had joined a lonely community. Around me each day were dour faces eclipsed by large piles of books. There were the regulars, like the old couple who arrived every morning, each holding a loop of the shopping bag which contained all their notes. And there was the historian who chattered madly to herself. (“Oh dear! Oh! Now, what’s this? What? Oh, my!”)
There were also the faces of young men and women worn by long study. And everywhere eyes turned away the moment our glance accidentally met. Some persons I sat beside day after day, yet we passed silently at the end of the day, strangers. Still, we were united by a common respect for the written word and for scholarship. We did form a union, though one in which we remained distant from one another.
More profound and unsettling was the bond I recognized with those writers whose books I consulted. Whenever I opened a text that hadn’t been used for years, I realized that my special interests and skills united me to a mere handful of academics. We formed an exclusive — eccentric! — society, separated from others who would never care or be able to share our concerns. (The pages I turned were stiff like layers of dead skin.)
I began to wonder: Who, beside my dissertation director and a few faculty members, would ever read what I wrote? And: Was my dissertation much more than an act of social withdrawal? These questions went unanswered in the silence of the Museum reading room. They remained to trouble me after I’d leave the library each afternoon and feel myself shy unsteady, speaking simple sentences at the grocer’s or the butcher’s on my way back to my bed-sitter.
Meanwhile my file cards accumulated. A professional, I knew exactly how to search a book for pertinent information. I could quickly assess and summarize the usability of the many books I consulted. But whenever I started to write, I knew too much (and not enough) to be able to write anything but sentences that were overly cautious, timid, strained brittle under the heavy weight of footnotes and qualifications. I seemed unable to dare a passionate statement. I felt drawn by professionalism to the edge of sterility, capable of no more than pedantic, lifeless, unassailable prose.
Then nostalgia began. After years spent unwilling to admit its attractions, I gestured nostalgically toward the past.
I yearned for that time when I had not been so alone. I became impatient with books. I wanted experience more immediate. I feared the library’s silence. I silently scorned the gray, timid
faces around me. I grew to hate the growing pages of my dissertation on genre and Renaissance literature. (In my mind I heard relatives laughing as they tried to make sense of its title.) I wanted something I couldn’t say exactly what. I told myself that I wanted a more passionate life. And a life less thoughtful.
And above all, I wanted to be less alone. One day I heard some Spanish academics whispering back and forth to each other, and their sounds seemed ghostly voices recalling my life. Yearning became preoccupation then. Boyhood memories beckoned, flooded my mind. (Laughing intimate voices. Bounding up the front steps of the porch. A sudden embrace inside the door.)
For weeks after, I turned to books by educational experts. I needed to learn how far I had moved from my past to determine how fast I would be able to recover something of it once again. But I found little. Only a chapter in a book by Richard Hoggart…. I left the reading room and the circle of faces.
I came home. After the year in England, I spent three summer months living with my mother and father, relieved by how easy it was to be home. It no longer seemed very important to me that we had little to say. I felt easy sitting and eating and walking with them.
I watched them, nevertheless, looking for evidence of those elastic, sturdy strands that bind generations in a web of inheritance. I thought as I watched my mother one night: of course a friend had been right when she told me that I gestured and laughed just like my mother. Another time I saw for myself: my father’s eyes were much like my own, constantly watchful.
But after the early relief, this return, came suspicion, nagging until I realized that I had not neatly sidestepped the impact of schooling. My desire to do so was precisely the measure of how much I remained an academic. Negatively (for that is how this idea first occurred to me): my need to think so much and so abstractly about my parents and our relationship was in itself an indication of my long education.
My father and mother did not pass their time thinking about the cultural meanings of their experience. It was I who described their daily lives with airy ideas. And yet, positively: the ability to consider experience so abstractly allowed me to shape into desire what would otherwise have remained indefinite, meaningless longing in the British Museum. If, because of my schooling, I had grown culturally separated from my parents, my education finally had given me ways of speaking and caring about that fact.
My best teachers in college and graduate school, years before, had tried to prepare me for this conclusion, I think, when they discussed texts of aristocratic pastoral literature. Faithfully, I wrote down all that they said. I memorized it: “The praise of the unlettered by the highly educated is one of the primary themes of ‘elitist’ literature.”
But, “the importance of the praise given the unsolitary, richly passionate and spontaneous life is that it simultaneously reflects the value of a reflective life.” I heard it all. But there was no way for any of it to mean very much to me. I was a scholarship boy at the time, busily laddering my way up the rungs of education.
To pass an examination, I copied down exactly what my teachers told me. It would require many more years of schooling (an inevitable miseducation) in which I came to trust the silence of reading and the habit of abstracting from immediate experience moving away from a life of closeness and immediacy I remembered with my parents, growing older before I turned unafraid to desire the past, and thereby achieved what had eluded me for so long the end of education.
QUALITY OF RESPONSE NO RESPONSE POOR / UNSATISFACTORY SATISFACTORY GOOD EXCELLENT Content (worth a maximum of 50% of the total points) Zero points: Student failed to submit the final paper. 20 points out of 50: The essay illustrates poor understanding of the relevant material by failing to address or incorrectly addressing the relevant content; failing to identify or inaccurately explaining/defining key concepts/ideas; ignoring or incorrectly explaining key points/claims and the reasoning behind them; and/or incorrectly or inappropriately using terminology; and elements of the response are lacking. 30 points out of 50: The essay illustrates a rudimentary understanding of the relevant material by mentioning but not full explaining the relevant content; identifying some of the key concepts/ideas though failing to fully or accurately explain many of them; using terminology, though sometimes inaccurately or inappropriately; and/or incorporating some key claims/points but failing to explain the reasoning behind them or doing so inaccurately. 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